Published On: July 3, 2015

Emperors and Coronels

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These days it’s impossible to read the news without bumping into another horrendous story about Petrobras or FIFA. Is there a link between the two? “In Latin America, the FIFA scandal sheds light on a system where strongmen dominate the sport through the distribution of favors,” said Christopher Gaffney, a scholar at the University of Zurich who studies football and mega-events like the World Cup.

While Brazilians remind foreigners that corruption is not exclusive to Brazil, they privately admit that it’s been endemic throughout Brazil’s history and Latin America’s. Brazil’s problems with nepotism, kleptocracy, and impunity go back at least to the days of the emperors in the early 19th century. Certainly, monarchies are not known for their egalitarian systems of justice.

Brazil became a Republic without fighting a war against its colonizer, Portugal. Brazilians believe that the last monarch, Emperor Dom Pedro II, (pictured above) was so in love with his adopted country that he was tired of being an emperor. As a common Portuguese expression goes: “God is Brazilian.”

Coronel Schmidt in 1911, known as the King of Coffee

Coronel Schmidt in 1911, known as the King of Coffee

Perhaps Dom Pedro II knew that his aristocratic way of life had been firmly established in Brazil. He saw a country where wealthy landowners – using slaves to work their coffee and sugar plantations – would remain in control of the country by utilizing their enormous power to bribe politicians, judges, and police.

During the 18th, 19th, and into the 20th century, these wealthy landowners were known as coronels, or colonels. They were not military men, but were always addressed by friends, foes, and workers as coronel. They controlled huge tracts of land for their own economic benefit, establishing the capitalist domination of land use and exploitation of workers. The royal impunity of Brazil’s emperors was inherited by the coronels, such as Coronel Schmidt, a German immigrant known as the “king of coffee.”

Even today in the less populated states of Brazil’s north, there are remnants of the coronels and their private armies. For example, there is the Sarney family from the northern state of Maranhão. José Sarney was the President of Brazil, whose tenure was tainted by accusations of corruption and who later returned to politics as a senator. His daughter became the governor of Maranhão.

Fernando Collor

Fernando Collor

Another former President, Fernando Collor, voluntarily resigned the presidency in 1992 in an attempt to prevent his impeachment, but he too was later elected as a senator from the northern state of Alagoas. He is now under investigation for corruption in the Petrobras scandal.

Although corruption in Brazil surprises no one, the criminals are never eager to read about their questionable behavior in the newspapers. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 14 Brazilian journalists have been killed since 2011 because of their work. Last month, the Brazilian government sent investigators to the state of Minas Gerais to look into the murder of journalist Evany José Metzker. Metzker’s body was found in a rural area near the town of Padre Paraiso, five days after he went missing. He had been tortured and decapitated. Colleagues said Metzker, 67, had been investigating drug trafficking and child abuse in the Jequitinhonha Valley region.

Metzker was the owner of the blog Coruja do Vale. A resident of the town of Medina, he had spent the three months prior to his death in neighboring Padre Paraiso working on a story. Parts of eastern and northern Minas Gerais, including Vale de Jequitinhonha and Vale do Aço, are known for their criminal gangs, who have created a “climate of terror” among journalists. In Ipatinga, the largest city in Vale do Aço, journalists have abandoned crime reporting since the murders in 2013 of reporter Rodrigo Neto and photographer Walgney Carvallo.

Evany José Metzker

Evany José Metzker

In a country once ruled by emperors and coronels, maintaining a wide berth between the peasants and the ruling class is easy and essential, in the same way that Leonardo DiCaprio’s clothing in the film Titanic keeps him out of the upper class dining room. In addition to the obvious separation between classes exhibited in clothing and food, there is a great psychological gulf that divides them: The ruling class believe themselves entitled to their privilege, and the working class doubt their worth.

While some of the gap between rich and poor has been lessened in Brazil in the 21st century, thanks to the rise of the first significant middle class, a measure of the colonial rhythms and archetypes remain. Like the poor, the middle class wish for more, and many suffer from low self-esteem because they compare themselves to the rich. Even the upper class in Brazil are envious of their North American neighbors, so much so that at least a million Brazilians are living in the US, many of them illegally.

The US consulate in São Paulo issues more visas than any other US consulate abroad, with roughly 600,000 issued in 2014, nearly double the number from 2010. Diplomats joke that Brazilian travelers single-handedly revived the economies of Miami and Orlando after the financial crisis in the US. Brazil is No. 1 in the number of annual international tourists to Disney World, and No. 2 in visitors to New York City.

Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues

Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues

Surprisingly, immigrants all over the world tend to come from middle-class countries, and they migrate to rich ones. We might have thought that as the world gets more middle class, global immigration would decline because of more opportunity at home. In fact, the reverse is happening. As the developing world gets more middle class, immigration has increased because educational and income gains have led to ever higher aspirations.

The idea of a national inferiority complex was first presented in Brazil by playwright Nelson Rodrigues, who called it the complexo de vira-lata, or mutt complex. Rodrigues coined the term after the 1950 World Cup, which was held in Brazil and ended in the country’s devastating loss to Uruguay during the final game. Rodrigues wrote that this complex is “the inferiority in which Brazilians voluntarily place themselves in front of the rest of the world.”

Whether inferiority arises from envy for the material wealth of richer lands or the desire for the power of the ruling class within Brazil, the diminishment of value an individual feels when measured against others eventually translates into a lack of self-worth. While psychologically unhealthy, this is also a political tool in mass psychology: When people cannot appreciate their own value, it is easier to keep them subjugated. In this way, peasants are kept from guiding their own destinies and taking charge of their own lives.

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Democratically elected representative governments are designed to create a more equal playing field for all. With access to health care and education, the mass population of workers can rise to the middle class, and the middle class strive to be rich. Without the hope of a better future for ourselves and our children, life holds little promise or purpose.

However, when the wealthiest and most powerful members of society – families descended from coronels with generations of control over land and commerce – attempt to extend their wealth illegally through bribery schemes, they exhibit the worst kind of psychological desire, an emptiness that borders on evil. The only thing worse than wealthy people who hoard their money are wealthy people who cheat their way to greater power and wealth.

With the last remnants of coronels, such as the CEO billionaires now detained for their connection to the Lava Jato scandal, we are witness to the most devastating form of inferiority complex: men whose arrogance is beyond measure because they judge themselves, like coronels, to be above the law. These are not the men we should respect for their expertise at the jeitinho brasiliero, the Brazilian way of bypassing the rules. These are men who have no honest self-worth, so they compensate by developing enormous egos. These are not the people to be leading a country. These are hollow men of wealth and power who deserve our pity, not our envy.

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.

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  1. Great article, Michael!

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